Your Money > Your Home
Prefab chic
Forget cookie cutter. Think cutting edge. Manufactured housing need not lack design or quality.
October 2, 2003: 2:57 PM EDT
By Sarah Max, Staff Writer for CNN/Money

BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) - Americans embrace mass production when it comes to cars, computers, clothing and just about every other consumer product.

Yet, put the words "prefab" and "home" together and we cringe.

"Prefab has gotten a bad name because so many (prefab homes) are built to lower standards," said William Apgar, a senior scholar at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "It's been pigeon-holed as a low-end product, but nothing says it can't be high end."

Without a doubt, prefab construction is more cost-effective than conventional "stick-built" construction. According to Apgar, the cost of building a basic prefabricated house is about half what it costs to build the same house from the ground up.

Even so, prefab need not lack design or quality. As an example, Apgar points to Sears Roebuck & Co. kit homes. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold about 100,000 home kits for $650 to $2,500. Almost a century later, these houses are not only still standing, but their mail-order status is a selling point.

In Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, meanwhile, prefab construction has done for homebuilding what Ikea has done for interior design catered to a market that is conscious of both design and budget.

"If given the opportunity I think there are tons of people here who would choose prefab," said Allison Arieff, editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine. She and Bryan Burkhart wrote the book "Prefab" (Gibbs Smith), whose photos are featured in our gallery of prefab homes.

Why Prefab?

When Matthew Hranek and his wife Yolanda Edwards sought to build a home on their 130 acres in Sullivan County, New York, they quickly realized that going to a traditional architect and building the house from the ground up would eat up too much time and money.

So the couple contacted Austrian architect Oskar Kaufmann about shipping one of his prefab houses across the Atlantic. With Kaufmann's help, the couple created their ideal house (big views and low maintenance) using a system of prefab components.

All told, the 1,400 square-foot house will cost about $215,000, an extremely good deal considering that the couple opted for solid oak floors, oak veneer walls and other high-end features.

"The manufacturing plant de-skills a lot of the functions," Harvard's Apgar explained. "Think about it: You don't need an electrician to lay wires or a plumber to lay pipe." With conventional construction you pay skilled labor to do many of these simple tasks.

The prefab process also takes less time because it's not subject to weather problems or contractor scheduling glitches.

So far, the only real hold up on Hranek and Edward's house has been that rainy weather in New York has delayed the pouring of the foundation.

Once the house and a team from Austria arrive, it will take no more than a week to assemble the house. "The Austrians told me they wanted this house up in 5 days," Hranek said.

Yet, all things being equal, the quality of a prefab house can be as good as if not better than one built on the site. "If you built a good home under a manufactured housing technique, people wouldn't know," Apgar said. "It's the same materials just being assembled in a different way."

So where can I get one?

Architect Rocio Romero estimates that she's been asked this question between 2,000 and 3,000 times since the prototype of her prefab LV Home (see gallery) was first published in Dwell.

Those calling about the house, which she built for $30,000 on her parents' property in Chile, are from all walks of life, she said. Some want to use it as a vacation house or guesthouse. Others want to scale down in a retirement home. Still others, she says, are "young people who think it's swank."

Yet, like many designers, Romero had a hard time persuading U.S. manufacturers to produce her unconventional design. "When I approached manufacturers I was politely turned down," said the 31-year-old Romero, who is now in the process of making and selling kits of the LV Home on her own.

According to Arieff, there are plenty of architects who want to design cutting-edge prefab homes and plenty of people who would love to live in them. Manufacturers just need to be convinced that the demand is there.

"There's this whole segment of the market, like myself, that wants something better," Arieff said. "But the prefab industry here has a pattern that works. They don't want to change."

For those interested, it's possible to contact the architect about building their prefab design, Arieff said, though the full cost benefits of prefab won't be realized unless the house is produced on a large-scale basis.

In January, Dwell invited architects to design a prefab home for Nathan and Ingrid Wieler that fit the North Carolina couple's requirements and their budget of $200,000 to $250,000.

Sixteen architects entered the competition, which was won by New York-based Resolution: 4 Architecture. It's a 2,260 square-foot cedar-sided prefab, now in the process of being built. (Click here to see it.)

Perhaps more important, the contest has helped shed light on just how "fab" prefab can be. Arieff has been flooded with inquiries from would-be buyers, developers and investors.

"All of the firms we worked with have had their phones ringing off the hook," she said. "If an architect can get buyers for just 10 houses, I can see that a factory might go 'Ah ha, I can make money.'"  Top of page

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